Sous les pavés, la plage
“I HAVE NEVER considered the Situationist International as one of those intellectual errors that only needs to be left to crumble to dust, scattering its corpses.” —IS #5 1960
One of the advantages of having an eccentric intellectual as a father is that he buys you Situationist anthologies for your 16th birthday. That’s right, folks. It was these iconic images (photographs, “propaganda” posters and prints) of the May 1968 student protests in France that first captured my imagination. I started having nauseating romantic daydreams of spontaneous revolutions in the streets of Paris (just to make it through class without falling asleep). Back in the day, I ran with anything that mobilized my excess energy and teenage angst (I saved the critical analysis and “problematizing” for my college years). While there is something quite simplistic about Situationist theory, it possesses an undeniably seductive quality (especially when looking for an escape from the suburban matrix of SUVs and Starbucks). I remember reading (AKA flipping through the pages for pictures) The Revolution of Everyday Life (Raoul Vaneigem) and The Society of the Spectacle (Guy Debord). While I had a limited understanding of the complex theoretical elements of Situationist theory and literature back in high school, I was viscerally attracted to Situationist aesthetics. Debord called for both the negation of Art (capital A) and the simultaneous realization of it through the making of daily life as an ecstatic and delirious experience or situation. This process was known as Détournement or “the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble. The two fundamental laws of détournement are the loss of importance of each detourned autonomous element — which may go so far as to completely lose its original sense — and at the same time the organization of another meaningful ensemble that confers on each element its new scope and effect.” (SI, 1959). Additionally, the off-putting dogma and masculinist dimensions of Anarchism were less severe in the Situationist International (though not entirely absent). Debord and Vaneigem (and a slew of other young philosophers) introduced love back into the picture: “People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have corpses in their mouths.” (The Revolution of Everyday Life). No one could deny Vaneigem’s raw talent as a writer. The entire book is poetry. While not impermeable to criticism, the Situationists acted as a catalyst for radical thought and possibility (alongside Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince) in my youth. Unlike the majority of militant leftists I organized with, situationists considered the loop holes built into capitalism; the everyday possibilities for resistance. They, like Tupac, made room for a rose to grow out of concrete; for city and urban life to be more than an alienating and oppressive dungeon. Something I’ll always carry with me is the infamous Situationist slogan: sous les pavés, la plage / beneath the paving stones, the beach. Back in 1968, groups of students and miscellaneous artists would dig up cobble stone roads to expose “la plage” and either throw the stones at police or leave them in piles around the city. Passerbys were invited to interact. It looked something like this:
“Maps had traditionally been made by those wishing to impose order upon the city… In their maps, by stark contrast, Debord and Jorn attempted to put the spectator at ease with a city of apparent disorder, exposing the strange logic that lay beneath its surface… the situationist maps described an urban navigational system that operated independently of Paris’s dominant patterns of circulation.” — Simon Sadler, The Situationist City
Psychogeography was defined in 1955 by Guy Debord as the “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals” or simply put “a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities…just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape.” (Utne Reader). My freshman year at Wesleyan, a group of us tried (and failed) to start our own psychogeography club. It turns out that the only other people as interested in re-imagining cities as me are annoying maniacal white activisty types that drive me absolutely crazy. Fortunately, I later found more compatible company to explore urban landscapes with. The truth is one doesn’t need to retrace the origins of psychogeography or even adopt that specific vocabulary to appreciate getting lost or wandering side streets (or any other number of curious exercises). However, once in awhile, I like to revisit the people and places that incited my first bursts of creative energy and so-called radical activity. In some strange way, I owe a lot (or a little or nothing, depending on how you look at it) to these old dead and/or dying white European philosophers, intellectuals, artists etc. No matter how elitist and inaccessible they remain, I still find something beautiful and very much alive in their remains. Press play for more info:
As they say: Vivez sans temps mort. Live without dead time.